Laura Dean Bennett
The bee is domesticated, but not tamed.
~ William Longgood
Tony and Rita Kelly said they’d been thinking about beekeeping for several years. They finally jumped into it about five years ago, after they’d retired and had more time.
And both report that it’s a great hobby.
Tony retired from Watoga State Park where he was maintenance supervisor for many years, and Rita retired from a 30-year career as a pre-school teacher at Green Bank.
They are in the keeping business in several ways. They keep family close, and they keep bees, chickens and a boxer mix named Cinnamon.
Their grandkids include a 15 year old, a four year old and 20 month old.
“It’s wonderful that they can spend a lot of time here,” Rita said, smiling. “They’re learning a lot about the bees.
“The four year old has gotten suited up a few times, and the fifteen year old also helps.”
The couple lives in Minnehaha Springs, right on the spot where Tony was raised.
“My dad was really scared of bees,” Tony remembered. “He’d fool around with a rattlesnake, but wouldn’t get close to bees.
“I always thought it might be something I’d like.”
When asked what their neighbors think of them keeping bees, the Kellys said their neighbors are family.
Their daughter and her family live on one side of them, and their son and his family live on the other side.
It makes it convenient for babysitting grandchildren and for lots of visits back and forth.
“This is a good place to raise a family,” Tony said.
He knows all about family, but when it comes to bees, Tony said, “We’re relatively new to it, but we’re really enjoying it.
“It’s a lot of hard work, but you’re always learning something, and the bees are entertaining and fascinating.”
They’re also good pollinators for the Kelly’s garden and their apple trees.
“Bees aren’t aggressive,” he added. “They’re usually docile unless you disturb them too much.”
The Kellys have Langstroth type beehives – eight of them and another one ready to go – and they check on them daily.
Cinnamon used to go down to the hives with them.
“She’s gotten stung a few times and now she doesn’t want anything to do with those bees,” Rita laughed.
The Kelly’s home and property is a show place.
“Tony can build anything,” Rita said proudly.
“He’s always building something. When we got married, Tony built this house, and we’ve always lived here.
“When we started out with the bees, Tony bought some hives, but now he builds them himself,” Rita added.
Tony designed a special horizontal hive and this is the second year it’s been in use.
“You don’t have to disturb the bees as much with this design,” he said.
“And it’s fun to be able to just open up the side and watch them at work. It’s also makes it easier to increase the size of the hive.
Location of a hive is important, too. It should face east and southeast so they’ll get out early in the morning and produce more honey, and south so it can get the most sun during the day.
Each hive is home to about 30,000 to 60,000 bees, and they are extremely skilled in taking care of themselves and their hive.
They gather tree sap and use that to make propolis – a sticky gum substance which they use to seal up the hive of any cracks they find in it, and if, say, a mouse gets in, they will sting it to death and encase the body in propolis so it can’t contaminate the hive.
“They’re smart,” Tony said. “And they’re organized.”
Everything is done in the beehive to maximize chances of the hive’s survival. And the bees are sometimes cruel in achieving that goal.
Every bee is born with a specific job to do.
All young females are first assigned to work in the nursery tending the larvae.
Then they move on to their natural job assignments.
“If the queen is sick or not laying eggs, her attendants will kill her,” Tony said.
When they need a new queen, they’ll make a few other eggs to serve as potential queens.
By feeding royal jelly to the first one who emerges they make her their next queen, then she promptly goes to the other cells containing potential queens and kills them.
“The females don’t live long,” Tony said. “They work themselves to death.”
They live only 40 days in summer, three months in winter.
They fly from blossom to blossom gathering nectar on their legs to bring it back to the hive and turn into honey.
The males, called drones, can’t sting.
They just mate with the queen in a mating flight.
As soon as the drones mate, they die. Then the queen stays in the hive for the rest of her life and lays up to 1,000 to 1,500 eggs a day.
There are several breeds of bees, some known to have better temperaments than others.
“Russian” queens make a very hardy hive, less susceptible to disease and varona mites, but the Russian bees are very mean,” Tony said.
Then there are Buckfast, Italian, Carniolans, Causca-sian, Cordovan and African bees.
Most people who are starting out, order a package of bees by January, then when the kit arrives, they take out the queen, who costs $35, and the sugar water, and dump the bees into the hive.
Beekeepers usually buy bees and queens and have them shipped to them.
Yes, you can get bees by mail.
“You can order them and pick them up at S&T Bees in Elkins,” Tony said.
“They have a lot of knowledge, and they’re happy to help you.
“Southern States has a large selection of bee keeping supplies,” Tony added.
There are people who raise queens in our area, but it’s hard to do, and putting a new queen from outside the hive can be tricky.
The bees need to be coaxed into accepting a strange queen, and if they are already in the process of making their own queen, they’ll kill a new queen introduced from outside.
Queen bees live longer than any of the other bees in her hive. A queen’s life expectancy is between three and five years.
The honey that bees produce is an extremely healthy food, and it will not go bad.
“It will keep for years and years,” Rita reported. “It will eventually crystallize, but you can rejuvenate it by putting the jar in warm water.”
“We don’t make a lot of honey,” Tony said. “There’s a lot of work to it and we’re really not big enough to make any money at it, so we just make a few jars every once in a while and give them to family and friends.”
To get the honey, you shake the bees from a frame that has been removed from the hive.
Then spin the frame in a machine that spins out the honey.
Set the frames in the yard and the bees will find them, eat the honey and in that way, finish cleaning them up.
The honeycomb is melted down for candles.
When a hive has all the bees in it that it can hold, the queen and a large number of the bees leave the hive in search of another home.
This is called swarming.
“Sometimes, if you can follow a swarm, and they land on something that you can get to –a shrub or a tree that you can climb up to – you can capture a swarm and bring it back to a new hive and this way, increase your number of bees,” Tony explained.
“We learn something every time we inspect the hives. You have to look for little signs of change in each hive and keep on top of the health of the hive and whether the queen’s laying eggs,” Rita said.
“It’s important to keep records,” she added.
Dressed in protective beekeeper jackets and hoods, Tony and Rita carefully open each hive.
They search for eggs which were recently laid, look for any signs that a beetle or other intruder has broken in and look for the queen in each hive.
Do they ever get stung?
The answer is yes, but not too often.
When bees sting, they release a pheromone which alerts all the other bees to a danger and then the whole hive can be after you.
Tony said never swat at a bee. You’ll just make it mad.
And if you do get stung, don’t touch the stinger.
The bee leaves its stinger inside you, which continues to pulse out its toxin for a bit after the sting. Tony advises using a dull knife edge to slide the stinger out rather that rub at it.
“We use this little smoker to calm the bees,” Rita said.
“The smoke messes with their pheromones. When they get stirred up, they send off pheromones, and it makes the whole hive disturbed.”
Sandy Simmons is the president of Pocahontas County Beekeepers Association, which has about 15 active members.
“She’s very experienced,” Tony said. “We meet the third Thursday of each month at 7 p.m. at the Wellness Center.
“Once a year we take a field trip to someone’s apiary and have the meeting there. Last month the club met here.”
Simmons encourages anyone who’s interested in keeping bees to get involved with the organization.
“Bees are fascinating,” she said. “They’re valuable to the ecosystem and essential to our food chain.
“They can be a lot of work – hot work in the heat of the day, which is when we work our bees. And in the summer, with the protective clothing on, it can really get hot.
“But the people who keep bees all seem to thoroughly enjoy them.
“Our meetings are educational. It’s a good place to learn about beekeeping,” she added.
Beekeepers tend to be nice, responsible people who will help you.
“Of course, if you ask ten different beekeepers a question, you’ll get ten different answers,” Rita laughed.